Hakeem Nicks celebrates one of his two touchdowns in the Giants 34-10 drubbing of the Texans on Sunday.
Projected to dismantle the last-ranked Houston pass defense this week, the former first-round pick did not disappoint, turning in his best game as an NFL wide receiver.
On top of his 12 catches for 130 yards Sunday, the 22-year-old wideout recorded his second two-touchdown game of the season (he scored three times in Week 1 vs. Carolina), and showed the rest of the league why he is the Giants top playmaker on offense.
Fast becoming Eli Manning's most-targeted receiver, the North Carolina native has had 26 passes thrown his way over the last two games, catching 20 of them for 240 yards.
Compared with another Manning favorite, Plaxico Burress, because of his unique downfield ability, Nicks' strong hands and deceptive speed enable him to enjoy success in the passing game. Despite his rather ordinary height (he's only listed at six feet), Nicks relies on great timing and out-muscling defensive backs for position down the field.
The same skill set that allows Nicks to be so dangerous down the field has turned him into the Giants' primary option in the red zone.
While he does use his 215-pound frame to dominate smaller DBs around the goal line, a la Burress, Nicks is also dangerous inside the 20 because of his explosiveness in and out of cuts. His initial burst helps him create a window of space between him and the defender, making life easier for Eli Manning when he targets Nicks in the red zone.
Along with WR Steve Smith, the Giants' leading receiver during the first three weeks of the season, the two rank among the NFL's most productive receiver tandem this year.
Even though Smith may not be the Giants No. 1 wide receiver anymore, the former USC wideout is still a threat offensively, considering that he now sees less of opposing defenses' top corners and more single coverage.
With over 700 receiving yards in five games, the duo also has 60 catches so far this year, one of only five pairs of receivers (along with Wayne-Collie/Clark, Gaffney-Lloyd, and White-Gonzalez) to reach 60+ receptions this season.
Against the Texans, Nicks was the focal point of the Giants' passing attack as Eli continued to feed him the ball all afternoon. Although he and Manning couldn't connect on two deep pass attempts, they recorded seven first downs on the day and dominated the short and intermediate passing zones.
Set on not allowing Nicks to beat them deep, the Texans let him establish a rhythm with Eli in the short game early on, as he caught the first seven passes thrown his way, including his two TD receptions. With both of his touchdowns coming inside the 20-yard line, Nicks now has scored on five different occasions in the red zone and has emerged as the Manning's primary option near the goal line.
In their last four regular season games against Dallas, the Giants have beaten the Cowboys three times, averaging 33 points in those wins. In what usually amounts to a shootout between Eli and Tony Romo, Nicks will have ample opportunity to make plays against a fast, but over-aggressive Dallas secondary, while he competes with Pro Bowl wide receiver Miles Austin on the other side.
Looking down the road, the Giants will continue to rely on their second-year receiver to be a catalyst in Kevin Gilbride's offense this season.
With all the tools in place for him to become an elite NFL wideout, Nicks just needs some seasoning before he grows into the Giants' featured offensive weapon.
Jesse Paguaga is a regular contributor to Baseball Digest. He writes as an intern on the Bleacher Report website. Jesse writes for Gotham Baseball, along with Gotham Hoops and Gotham Gridiron. He can be reached at Paguaga@usc.edu and can be found on Facebook and on Twitter http://twitter.com/#!/@jpags77